Interview with Robert Eggleton, the author of Rarity from the Hollow

Rarity from the Hollow is adult literary science fiction filled with tragedy, comedy and satire. A Children’s Story. For Adults.

1 Rarity Front Cover WEB (2)

Lacy Dawn’s father relives the Gulf War, her mother’s teeth are rotting out, and her best friend is murdered by the meanest daddy on Earth. Life in the hollow is hard. She has one advantage — an android was inserted into her life and is working with her to cure her parents. But, he wants something in exchange. It’s up to her to save the Universe. Lacy Dawn doesn’t mind saving the universe, but her family and friends come first.

I asked Robert about this project via email. The interview is presented in full below.




Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

Thank you, Ian, for inviting me to tell your readers a little about myself and my debut novel, Rarity from the Hollow.

Could you begin by describing this project: the book – Rarity from the Hollow – and why you wrote it?

Sure. Rarity from the Hollow is an adult literary science fiction adventure filled with tragedy, comedy, and satire. Lacy Dawn begins the story as the eleven year old protagonist. Her father relives the Gulf War, her mother’s teeth are rotting out, and her best friend is murdered by the meanest daddy on Earth. Life in The Hollow is hard, but she has one advantage – she’s been befriended by a semi-organic, semi-robot who works with her to cure her parents. He wants something in exchange, though. It’s up to Lacy Dawn to save the Universe.

To prepare Lacy for her coming task, she is being schooled daily on every known subject via direct downloads into her brain. Her powers gain strength as she comes to grip with the reality that she is not just a kid, that she is many thousands of years old and much more mature than her android boyfriend for when she’s old enough to have one. Some of the courses tell her how to apply magic to resolve everyday problems much more pressing to her than a universe in big trouble, like those at home and at school. She doesn’t mind saving the universe, but her own family and friends come first.

Once her parents have regained a semblance of mental health, Lacy Dawn assembles her team: her best friend’s ghost, annoyingly pessimistic as always; her formerly mistreated mutt, the only one with enough empathy skills to communicate directly with the enemy; her now employable father who has cut way down on drinking beer and has resumed his status as the best auto trader in the Hollow; a stoner neighbour who is highly skilled in business transactions and who got so rich from selling marijuana that he moved away from big city life because it would be better for his Bipolar Disorder; and a mother with greatly improved self-esteem now that she has new teeth and a G.E.D.

With a great team like that, what could go wrong? It’s simple, save the Universe and Lacy can get back to the sixth grade where life’s real challenges are faced by most kids. But no, entrenched management of any organization, including the universe, never makes anything that simple. Will Lacy Dawn’s predisposition, education, and magic be enough for her to save the Universe, Earth, and, most importantly, protect her own family?

The content of Rarity from the Hollow addresses pressing social issues in our society, like child maltreatment and poverty, while taking readers on a wild ride to an alien shopping mall where getting the best deals affect survival of planets. Written in colloquial Appalachian voice, it is a children’s story for adults, not for the prudish, faint of heart, or easily offended.

Rarity from the Hollow was the first, perhaps the only, science fiction adventure to specifically predict the rise of Donald Trump to political power — parody with no political advocacy one side or any other. Readers find out how Lacy Dawn convinced Mr. Rump (Bernie Sanders) to help talk Mr. Prump (Donald Trump) into saving the universe. The political allegory includes pressing issues that are being debated today, including illegal immigration and the refuge crisis; extreme capitalism / consumerism vs. domestic spending for social supports; sexual harassment…. Part of the negotiations in the story occur in the only high rise on planet Shptiludrp (Shop Until You Drop), a giant shopping mall and the center of economic governance, now easily identifiable as Trump Tower.

I’m a retired children’s psychotherapist. Most of my writing has been nonfiction in the field of child welfare. After over forty years in the field, I returned to writing fiction, in large part, as a means of raising funds for the prevention of child maltreatment. Half of author proceeds are donated to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia.

Many will find the subject matter of child maltreatment and sexual abuse daunting and uncomfortable – indeed I didn’t want to read the book – even though the proceeds support the prevention of child maltreatment. Why did you decide to address this issue in fiction?

Beginning with having read Charles Dickens when I was a teen, I’ve read a lot of books that featured child victimization. I even went to see the box office hit Precious when it came out in 2009. The movie was based on a book, Push by Sapphire, that I’d read. One thing that all of these great works had in common was that they were so depressing that their audiences didn’t want to think about the messages after the last page was turned. My goal was to write a story that sensitized readers to the huge social problem of child maltreatment through a comedic and satiric adventure – something that was fun to read and, because of that, might influence people to want to do something to help prevent child maltreatment. The early tragedy in Rarity from the Hollow feeds and amplifies subsequent comedy and satire.

I agree that some prospective readers could find the topics of child maltreatment in fiction daunting. That’s why I especially welcome the opportunity that you provided, Ian, to describe the story beyond words that trigger. Perhaps it sounds weird, but as I wrote my novel I imagined a therapeutic impact – that those of us who had experienced child maltreatment benefiting from having read Rarity from the Hollow. That’s a giant target audience. So, the story had to be hopeful, to inspire. While prevalence rate is difficult to come up with and there is no estimate of how many read novels, approximately one quarter of all adults believe that they were maltreated as children – physically, sexually, or psychologically. Internationally, forty million children are abused each year:

So far, eight of ninety-eight independent book blog reviewers have privately disclosed to me that they were victims of childhood maltreatment and that they had benefited having read my story. One of these reviewers publicly disclosed: “…soon I found myself immersed in the bizarre world… weeping for the victim and standing up to the oppressor…solace and healing in the power of love, laughing at the often comical thoughts… marveling at ancient alien encounters… As a rape survivor… found myself relating easily to Lacy Dawn… style of writing which I would describe as beautifully honest. Rarity from the Hollow is different from anything I have ever read, and in today’s world of cookie-cutter cloned books, that’s pretty refreshing… whimsical and endearing world of Appalachian Science Fiction, taking you on a wild ride you won’t soon forget….”

Here’s another very touching review of Rarity from the Hollow that included public disclosure of child maltreatment by a book blogger: “…I enjoyed the book so much that a few months after reading it I just picked it up again…reminded me of stuff in the past but somehow it also made me feel less alone. It made me realize that there are so many children in this world getting abused, going through the stuff I have been through…. The fact that there’s sci-fi/fantasy in it (such as genderless alien DotCom) kinda makes the book easier to read, less heavy on some moments… I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s 18+ but do keep in mind it’s a very heavy book to read yet so worth it.”…/rarity-from-the-hallow-by-ro…/

While sticking close to the mission of sensitizing readers to the huge social problem of child maltreatment, I wanted to produce a story that readers would enjoy: “…a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only instead of the earth being destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, Lacy Dawn must…The author has managed to do what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse, and written about them with tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them…Eggleton sucks you into the Hollow, dunks you in the creek, rolls you in the mud, and splays you in the sun to dry off. Tucked between the folds of humor are some profound observations on human nature and modern society that you have to read to appreciate…it’s a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy.

“…Full of cranky characters and crazy situations, Rarity From the Hollow sneaks up you and, before you know it, you are either laughing like crazy or crying in despair, but the one thing you won’t be is unmoved… Robert Eggleton is a brilliant writer whose work is better read on several levels. I appreciated this story on all of them.”

With your background as a mental health psychotherapist, was it easy to come up with a realistic plot? Can you describe the process of writing this story?

While some book reviewers have posted that Rarity from the Hollow is wildly imaginative, a lot of it is more realistic than not. The characters are based on real-life people that I’ve met over the years. The flow of the story was modeled after a mental health treatment episode: difficult to face in early chapters similar to how disclosures can be difficult to make before treatment relationships are firmly established, more cathartic in middle chapters, and almost silly in final chapters as we accept that we live in the present and that past demons do not control our lives.

A couple of the wildest elements of the story are more reality-based than appears on the surface. For example, the fantastical means employed by the alien in my story to treat the parents for their mental health concerns was based on today’s medical reality. In the beginning of Rarity from the Hollow, Dwayne, the abusive father was a war damaged Vet experiencing anger outbursts and night terrors. The mother was a downtrodden victim of domestic violence who had lost hope of ever getting her G.E.D. or driver’s license, or of protecting her daughter. Diagnosis and treatment of these concerns affecting the parents, as representative of many similarly situated, was based on emerging technologies presented at the 2015 World Medical Innovation Forum: . Yes, in real life, like the android performed in my story, patients have been hooked up to computer technology for noninvasive medial diagnosis and treatment, and the practice will likely grow as this science matures.

Exciting research was presented that may one day revolutionize psychiatric treatment: (1) smart brain prosthetics, wireless devises used to relieve depression, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder…neural engineering to manipulate brain signals; (2) sophisticated imaging systems that are minimally invasive to brain circuitry for diagnosis (3) and, healing the brain with neuromodulation and electroceuticals to treat depression and schizophrenia.

Also, now that Donald Trump has become a household name world-wide, the cockroach infestation used as a metaphor of immigration issues and for the refugee crisis in Rarity from the Hollow no longer feels so silly. Several European commentators have had articles recently published in magazines that have called migrants and the increase in immigrants in some countries a cockroach infestation. The U.N. reacted to this comparison:

Don’t misunderstand. I appreciate the compliments about Rarity from the Hollow by book reviewers who have found it unique and imaginative, but actually all that I did was watch a little television and project a little bit. Mr. Prump in my story was a projection of Donald Trump based on the TV show, The Apprentice. The counterpart, Mr. Rump, was based on my understanding of positions held by Bernie Sanders as I wrote the story.

You describe Rarity from the Hollow as social science fiction. Why choose the science fiction genre to address the issue of child maltreatment?

Rarity from the Hollow is adult literary science fiction. I write adult fiction, not because of its sexual or violent content, although there may be a little here or there, less than in many YA novels, but because the themes, especially the satire, comedy, and social commentary, are for grown-ups. To me, the term literary refers to the type of story that doesn’t end after the last page of a novel has been read. I admire the writing of Charles Dickens in this regard. He felt that a novel should do more than merely entertain.

The term science fiction is well known and has two broad categories: hard and soft. In the 1970s, Ursula K. Le Guin coined the term “social science fiction” and Rarity from the Hollow may fall within that subgenre better than any other. The science fiction is used as a backdrop in the story. It is not hard science fiction that has a lot of technical details, but it is also not convoluted with lineage and unusual names for characters the way that some soft science fiction and fantasy books employ. It is written in colloquial adolescent voice comparable to The Color Purple.

I selected the science fiction backdrop for Rarity from the Hollow because it was the best fit by process of elimination. The novel also has elements of horror, romance…. In today’s reality the systems in place to help maltreated children are woefully inadequate. I felt that the literary, biographical, nonfiction genres wouldn’t work because the story would have been so depressing that only the most determined would have finished it.

I felt that the story had to be hopeful. I wanted it to inspire survivors of child maltreatment toward competitiveness within our existing economic structures, instead of folks using past victimization as an excuse for inactivity. I didn’t think that anybody would bite on the theme of a knight on a white stallion galloping off a hillside to swoop victims into safety, like in the traditional romance genre.  That almost never actually happens in real life, so that genre was too unrealistic as the primary. There was already enough horror in the story, so that genre was out too. What could be more horrific than child abuse?

The protagonist and her traumatized teammates needed fantastical elements to achieve empowerment. But, as in life, one cannot overcome barriers to the pursuit of happiness by simply imagining them away. That’s where the science fiction came into play. It provided a power source. I tied the science fiction to Capitalism because in today’s reality it will take significant financial investment by benefactors to significantly improve the welfare of children in the world.

Both satire and science fiction tend to have dedicated and loyal fan-bases. Did you want to target them specifically with this story?

As you know, Rarity from the Hollow is my debut novel. Honestly, and I’m learning, but I was such a novice that my sole goal was to produce a good book. I didn’t actually consider target audiences as I wrote it. I wasn’t even confident that my novel would get published. However, I’m an old hippie and in the back of my mind was a comic: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Did you find it hard to write comedy around the seriousness of the message you wanted to deliver?

No, writing comes easy for me, even when the topic is serious. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this novel – to share the truth. While I admire many great works, too many to mention, that have addressed child victimization in fiction, the representations in have been partial. In my experience, most maltreated children object to the “poor, pitiful me” characterization of them during their interactions with others. Survivors of childhood maltreatment are much more than victims. We laugh, as well as, cry, joke around as well as, reflect…. While victimization is certainly correlated with mental and physical ills in life, the most dominant characteristic of it is probably resiliency.   

Kevin Patrick Mahoney, editor of the site, Authortrek, has said that the story was, “…not for the faint hearted or easily offended….” If you’re trying to raise both awareness and money for the cause, why risk offending an audience?

Mr. Mahoney reviewed an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of Rarity from the Hollow. At that time, the book did not have the first two introductory chapters for the purpose of back story. It began with the harshest chapter in the book, the only scene with any violence (a bloody lip), but it is a scene of domestic violence that has deep emotional content. He felt that this scene was too much as the first chapter and other than that I can’t say why he felt that my novel was not for the faint hearted or easily offended.

Of course, what one person finds offensive another may not. For example, I read a Young Adult novel as part of a Goodreads program. It had an attempted rape scene. What I found offensive, however, was that the female protagonist, later in the story, agrees to go to the School Prom with the guy who tried to rape her. Ugh!

There is nothing intentionally offensive in Rarity from the Hollow. I did not pull any punches or sugar coat the story either.  The language and concepts are mild in comparison to some of the stuff that kids have said during actual group therapy sessions that I have facilitated over the years. By child developmental stage, it is similar to the infamous early adolescent insult in E.T.: “penis breath.” It is tame in comparison to the content of the popular television series, South Park, which has been devoured by millions of teens. The “F Word” is used twice, and any other profanity is mild colloquialism true to the characters. There is no blood, guts, or gore. Nothing is killed. Nevertheless, I recommend consideration of Rarity from the Hollow as a novel for adults.

To open this interview, Ian, you mentioned that one of the characters in Rarity from the Hollow is a victim of sexual abuse. Faith (metaphor: Faith is not Dead), Lacy Dawn’s best friend, plays an annoying and comical ghost in the story. There are no scenes of her victimization, and it was treated with a flashback reference only. Actually, there are no sex scenes in the story at all, but there are sexual mentions in the form of puns.

Yes, the mission of the project is to increase sensitivity to the huge social problem of child maltreatment, but there are lots of ways to help needful kids. I’m hopeful that this interview contributes to the cause more so than whether it sells books.

How can you convince someone like me Rarity from the Hollow is worth reading?

I would not try to convince you, Ian, or any other your readers to do any more than to check out reviews of Rarity from the Hollow that have been uploaded to Amazon by independent book blog reviewers.

You also say that you think it is the only science fiction adventure to specifically predict the rise of Donald Trump to political power. Could you explain how this prediction unfolds in the story?

I’ve answered this question, in part, earlier during this interview. I will add that the long-standing feud between extreme capitalism and democratic socialism sometimes pits good people against each other, folks who have much more in common as human beings than that which divides them. So that I don’t spoil the story for potential readers, I’ll pass on explaining how Lacy Dawn opens the communication channels to solve the imminent danger to the universe, except to say that some families in real life have been torn apart by politics, similar to during the Civil War, and that I sometimes wish that Lacy Dawn was a real person.

What else do you want to say about the story?

For readers who are used to mainstream genre novels, I probably should point out that Rarity from the Hollow is written in third person omniscient narrator. “…The author has created a new narrative format, something I’ve never seen before, with a standard third-person narration, interspersed, lightly, with first-person asides. This makes me think of Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude where internal and external dialogue are blended…partaking a little of the whimsical and nonsensical humor of Roger Zelazny or even Ron Goulart….” Jefferson Swycaffer, Affiliate, Fantasy Fan Federation. Some of the inner thoughts of characters are in italics following the speaker’s voice. For some busy book readers, this style could feel like it slows down the read and could result in head hopping if an attempt is made to read my novel too quickly, but for leisurely readers with time to contemplate it is a good fit. “…If it does not make you think, you are not really reading it….”

Rarity from the Hollow is published by a small press. Have you ever had any interest from a mainstream publisher?

No. Referred to as the Big Five, I believe that the doors to mainstream publishers have been chained shut for as long as I can remember. Ferlinghetti, a Beat Poet from the ‘60s warned society about the impact of conglomerate publishing. Given increased name recognition, I may look around for an agent for the next novel but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Just thinking more broadly, how do you write? Are you a meticulous planner? Can you only write in the evenings or in the mornings, that sort of thing?

I start with a general outline that I revise as scenes build. Now that I’m retired, I write anytime that I decide to do so and time of day doesn’t seem to affect productivity. I do sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and need to work on a scene before returning to bed, and that session may take longer than might be healthful to a good night’s sleep.

You’ve been described as writing “one-quarter turn beyond that of Kurt Vonnegut”. Is he an influence? Who are your influences?

The review of the ARC that compared the writing to Vonnegut was written by a prominent book critic, a person much more well-read than me. To read the review in its entirety: Before this review, I’d never given it much thought – whether Vonnegut influenced my writing style. All that I can say is that the comparison was a high compliment. Other reviewers have made comparisons to other great writers. I love Vonnegut’s work.

As I’ve said, this is a difficult subject both to read but also to write about. Does it taint your dreams or even your day-to-day life?

In over forty years working with maltreated kids, looking back, there were only a couple of kids that caused me to shed a tear during psychotherapy. One girl noticed but didn’t say anything. The tear dripped onto a pad that I was using for notes. If you are concerned about whether you would find Rarity from the Hollow outside of your comfort zones, I sure don’t want to describe the content of that session. I’m going to let a book reviewer from Bulgaria answer this question for me because I feel the same way:

“…I enjoyed the book so much that a few months after reading it I just picked it up again…reminded me of stuff in the past but somehow it also made me feel less alone. It made me realize that there are so many children in this world getting abused, going through the stuff I have been through…. The fact that there’s sci-fi/fantasy in it (such as genderless alien DotCom) kinda makes the book easier to read, less heavy on some moments… I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s 18+ but do keep in mind it’s a very heavy book to read yet so worth it.”

Thanks very much for your time. Final question, what next for this project?

Frankly, I feel that I’ve been stuck in self-promotion mode for so long that I will be relieved when I pick back up on the next adventure: Ivy. While maintaining a comical and satirical approach, with a social science fiction backdrop, the story deals with addiction to drugs, and asks: How Far Will a Child Go to Save a Parent from Addition?

Thank you, Ian, for the opportunity to tell your readers a little about myself and my debut novel. You asked some very meaningful questions.

About the author:

Robert Eggleton has served as a children’s advocate in an impoverished state for over forty years. Locally, he is best known for his nonfiction about children’s programs and issues, much of which was published by the West Virginia Supreme Court where he worked from1982 through 1997. Today, he is a retired children’s psychotherapist from the mental health center in Charleston, West Virginia, where he specialized in helping victims cope with and overcome maltreatment and other mental health concerns. Rarity from the Hollow is his debut novel. Its release followed publication of three short Lacy Dawn Adventures in magazines. Author proceeds support the prevention of child maltreatment.

“The most enjoyable science fiction novel I have read in years.” Temple Emmet Williams, Author, former editor for Reader’s Digest

“Quirky, profane, disturbing… In the space between a few lines we go from hardscrabble realism to pure sci-fi/fantasy. It’s quite a trip.”Evelyn Somers, The Missouri Review

. “…a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse…tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them…profound…a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy.” — Awesome Indies (Gold Medal)

“…sneaks up you and, before you know it, you are either laughing like crazy or crying in despair, but the one thing you won’t be is unmoved…a brilliant writer.” —Readers’ Favorite (Gold Medal)

“Rarity from the Hollow is an original and interesting story of a backwoods girl who saves the Universe in her fashion. Not for the prudish.” —Piers Anthony, New York Times bestselling author

“…Good satire is hard to find and science fiction satire is even harder to find.” — The Baryon Review

 “…Brilliant satires such as this are genius works of literature in the same class as Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ I can picture American Lit professors sometime in the distant future placing this masterpiece on their reading list.” — Marcha’s Two-Cents Worth

 “…I know this all sounds pretty whack, and it is, but it’s also quite moving. Lacy Dawn and her supporting cast – even Brownie, the dog – are some of the most engaging characters I’ve run across in a novel in some time….”  — Danehy-Oakes, Critic whose book reviews often appear in the New York Review of Science Fiction

“… The author gives us much pause for thought as we read this uniquely crafted story about some real life situations handled in very unorthodox ways filled with humor, sarcasm, heartfelt situations and fun.” — Fran Lewis: Just Reviews/MJ Magazine

 Half of author proceeds are donated to Children’s Home Society of West Virginia for the prevention of child maltreatment

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Bête By Adam Roberts

BeteThe knowledge and techniques Adam Roberts displays in his 15th novel, Bête, are as admirable as they are varied. At first glance, Bête is straight forward near future science fiction story. Look beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find a darkly comic satire of such wit and charm, and a very British dystopia with the best anti-hero for many a year.

For he is Graham Penhaligon and he is a farmer and he kills a cow. Not so much of a big deal, except Animal Rights activists have developed AI chips to install in animals. The cow pleads for its life but Graham has a farm to run and no sympathy. He believes that it is the chip that is pleading and not the animal. A video of the event is released and Graham becomes infamous. As British society crumbles and the animals begin to take control first of their own lives and destinies, and then tracts of countryside, Graham finds himself increasingly unwanted by society and unloved by his family. Anathema to the animals, he seeks solace in Anne, a guest house owner and fellow loner. She has a loquacious cat who ‘badgers’ Graham into an act against his better nature, in order to save the one thing left in his life that has meaning.

This is no animal farm. Fine, so the animals can talk, and may have sentience, but this is Graham’s story. He is a grumpy old man living on his wits and just wanting to survive in a world he no longer understands or believes in. True, the world has little time for him either, but he is pivotal to humankind and animal kind whether he likes it or not.

Roberts’ satire has more bite (there, I said it) than almost any other satirical science fiction writer currently plying a trade. His observations around the www of world wide web and religion are most amusing.  And he has the ability to play with language in way that brings a smile to the reader and yet isn’t clichéd or predictable. Roberts even finds time to write passages where he openly questions common phrases and clichés. My favourite trope is the way he strings ideas together, just like they do in your own head, exemplified by the reference to Norman Bates in the final third. There’s some proper darkness too, as humanity and animals come to have different kinds of relationships – just ask the dog in Newcastle. Bête reflects significant chunks of British, or maybe even just English, culture too. There are plenty of nods to popular culture familiar to us today. The towns and other locations (boarded up Costa in Wokingham, a militarised dystopian Reading, living rough in woods, a dubious pub clinging on to the past, for example) suggest a particular mind-frame for the reader. This is dirt-under-the-finger-nails science fiction; flabby flesh, greying beards and desperation.

There is very little mention of the world outside England, so we’re not sure about how the spread of the sentient animals is affecting the elsewhere. I don’t think it’s an issue within the narrative because this isn’t a story about that. As the UK economy is in trouble, and money is ‘cents’ on chips, it would follow that Europe at least has problems too.

There are as many light gags as there are dark but Bête is ultimately a clever story of an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. Graham is quite simply an awesome and refreshing creation in a brilliant book. It has some serious things to say about how we treat animals and how we treat ourselves. Of course, it has comment on technology’s role in our future and some inventive religious ridicule. It has some decent things to say about family and relationships too. Bête is as unsettling as all the best science fiction should be. And how many fantastic science fiction novels can get away with that INXS gag? A triumph from a terrific science fiction author at the top of his considerable game.

Originally published on Book Geek:

Terra by Mitch Benn

TerraAs it’s a debut science fiction novel by a comedian and musician with cover praise from Neil Gaiman and a certain amount of internet buzz, I opened Terra with a mixture of anticipation and fear. Could it be that good? Is it folly for an artist to switch styles? Is Benn the heir apparent to the late great Douglas Adams? After an enjoyable 250-ish pages, the answer to all of the above is probably still open to debate.

Terra is the story of aliens being all alien on an alien planet. Not an easy concept to play with. So Benn drags the reader along by introducing a human character in order to relate to. It all starts very Adamesque. The humour is there, the characterisation is witty and the logic behind the scenario all works. Great I thought, this will be fun. Mr and Mrs Bradbury are the characters in question, but when they come across an alien craft they flee their car, leaving their as yet unnamed newborn baby girl strapped in. The alien – a scientist here to study ‘Rrth’ as they call Earth – decides to take the girl back to his planet with him.

Cut to 12 years later. We’re on the planet Fnrrn. Our scientist, Lbbp, has brought the girl up as his own daughter, naming her Terra. Terra is about to go to her next level of education, called the Lyceum. So the reader learns about the history and politics of this old civilisation as Terra studies along with her friends and classmates. We also learn what Benn thinks of our society as Ymn’s (humans) are almost vilified by the Fnrrn aliens. There is also, however, tribalism and conflict on this alien world. Throw in an even older alien race and the ingredients are all there for an interesting book. Proper science fiction as Terra learns her inherent humanness on the alien world, while Benn explores and satirises human nature both from its reflection in the aliens and its study from outsiders.

After part one, with the Adams like humour, the main section is almost devoid of that humour and style. Benn writes it as just about straight science fiction. About half way through the book, it occurred to me that the humour had gone (with the exception of the ancient alien race only visiting to leave a recipe for soup). Indeed, it’s a fairly short novel and becomes quite dark quite quickly. There is jealously, war, destruction and betrayal. Terra is always aware of who she is and where she came from. Lbbp never hides that. However, when she discovers what he did hide, the betrayal becomes brutal and Benn executes it brilliantly. It is heartbreaking. However, the reconciliation is too easy. The darkness Terra feels is lifted with almost no residual consequence, which I just didn’t believe – because the hurt was so painful. In fact, all the darkness and subsequent trust he builds with the reader evaporates too quickly. We’re suddenly all friends again (albeit in the face of adversary), the conflicts are all over, and even the mean character has redeemed himself. Of course, the coda is fairly predictable, but oddly, it returns back to the humorous style.

Terra is an odd sandwich of a book. Humour, light, dark, light, humour. It reads like science fiction 101 for beginners (although not dummies, as there are many smart ideas floating through the book, such as the way the alien invasion is spotted by Terra but not the Fnnrn natives – can you only see in others what you see yourself?). Benn has cleverly invented a familiar alien species with an interesting enough culture. The names and other nouns are (as you may have gathered) are all vowel free and some aren’t so easy to pronounce, with may put some readers off. Terra is a great character, although whether a well-rounded female I’ll leave others to judge. She learns and (Benn) explains ideas in a clear if simplistic manner. Hardened science fiction fans may not get anything new from Benn’s debut. If you’ve never read science fiction (and don’t mind the vowel-free language) or are interested in a fun space adventure with a young girl as protagonist, you’d do a lot worse that Terra.

First published at:

My favourite novels, almost

It occurred to me that within this blog, which is an exploration of the genre’s I love, I’ve not really listed my favourite novels. Which is odd, cos I like lists. I wouldn’t say I love lists. But I do like them. So I started listing my favourite novels by genre, such as near future, classic SF, magic realism, urban fantasy, classic fantasy, and more…and that didn’t work, mainly because I struggle to label things. So then I went for a list of overall favourites, but that didn’t really seem representative, as there was loads of novels by only a few authors. Nothing wrong with that, but it didn’t give a true picture of what I actually like. Then I thought, to hell with it. I harumphed a lot and left it a day.

So what I then did was do a list of all my favourite novels and then limit it to one per author. This meant that the list won’t be a million books long and gives a good overall picture. It’s not definitive or read. For example, I like The Midwich Cuckoos more than Super Sad True Love Story. There is no real difference in my opinion of Armageddon: The Musical to any of the Brentford Triangle novels. So, in no order what so ever:

  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
  • Blindness by Jose Saramago
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • The Death of Grass by John Christopher
  • The Prestige by Christopher Priest
  • Lethe by Tricia Sullivan
  • Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
  • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  • The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis
  • A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross
  • Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman
  • A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin
  • Spares by Michael Marshall Smith
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • Jem by Frederik Pohl
  • The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar
  • The Radleys by Matt Haig
  • The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
  • Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Feed by Mira Grant
  • Vurt by Jeff Noon
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • The Company by K.J. Parker
  • Already Dead by Charlie Huston
  • Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland And Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While by Taichi Yamada
  • Far North: A Novel by Marcel Theroux
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Air by Geoff Ryman
  • The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
  • Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin
  • Armageddon: The Musical by Robert Rankin
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • Under the Skin by Michel Faber
  • The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood
  • Makers by Cory Doctorow
  • The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker
  • Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Some of these are reviewed by me in this blog and elsewhere.

I would never be able to say which is my actual favourite, although the ones in bold I’ve read more than once. Those in italics I intend to read again. I might read the others again. I might not.

I dare you to agree.

SF novels enjoyed by the mainstream

In a recent piece I highlighted ten novels championed by the literary elite that I have argued are science fiction or fantasy. Precisely the kind of books that a certain class of reader and critic routinely turn their nose up. These are the kind of books such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go that are lauded in the press and loved by conventional reading groups. However, if this science fiction take of dystopian England and clones was written by a mainstream SF author such as Greg Bear or Charles Stross, I doubt the reaction would be the same. It is of course the case that most of these types of novels are one offs or a tip in the water by mainstream authors.

That being said, however, there are a number of very successful science fiction authors that are accepted and enjoyed by the non-geek fraternity. Here are the best five (with mild spoilers).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)

The novel: Aliens destroy the Earth. The last human and an alien escape just in time, before stumbling on the Galaxy’s president who has just stolen a brand new space craft. There are robots and poetry and mice and Slartibartfast. Of course, this is the best known comedy science fiction novel every written, and the plot and characters are as familiar as any in the science fiction universe. Arthur Dent is the classic everyman hero and Marvin the Paranoid Android is well known throughout popular culture.

The author: Adams wanted to be a writer on TV and radio and had never really planned to be a novelist. His early professional days were spent with the likes of the Monty Python team and this is clearly evident from his style of humour. The original script for H2G2 (as we know it) was for the radio and his idea came from lying drunk in a field in Austria. Adams went onto write several sequels and the Dirk Gently novels before his untimely passing in 2001.

The mainstream: Radio series. TV series. Hollywood film. One of the biggest rock bands in the world, Radiohead, naming a song after the aforementioned miserable Marvin. The novel was number 1 in the 1979 Times best seller list and number 4 in the BBC’s Big Read in 2003. The adaptations, extended universe books and sequel by Eoin Colfer highlight the legs that this science fiction has had. That means that not just the humour or the characters but the story is what appeals to the readership.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

The novel: In 1984, after the devastating war, Winston Smith lives in Airstrip One (cf UK), part of Oceania, one of three global superstates. He is having an affair with Julia and he rebels against the Party. He is later imprisoned and tortured by the Thinkpol, and then subsequently re-educated. The story is about freedom, control of the population, government surveillance, and the affects of war. It is also a love story, albeit one of the forbidden variety.

The author: Orwell has been called the best chronicler of British culture in the Twentieth Century. He is clearly intelligent and has a sharp wit and keen eye for social injustice. His is a satirist almost with comparison with Animal Farm and in Down and Out in Paris and London brilliantly captures a life in poverty. Orwell was declared unfit to fight in World War Two but found work in the Home Guard. He was a passionate journalist who wrote for left-leaning newspapers and literary magazines before completing his dystopian masterpiece.

The mainstream: What can be said about the impact of Orwell’s novel that hasn’t already been said. The modern lexicon teems with Orwellian language. Orwellian itself describes a destructive social condition. The Big Brother society, Room 101, thoughtcrime and others are common in modern culture. The book itself is required reading in most literature courses and every library has a copy. We haven’t even covered adaptations in other media. It was listed as the 13th best novel of the Twentieth Century by The Modern Library.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)

The novel: Dune is a far future tract based around the idea that humans have scattered across the galaxy. However, humans being what we are, there is still war, politics and struggle to contend with. Planets are rules by aristocracy and computers and AI have been banned. These have been replaced by highly developed minds called Mentals. The source of this development is ‘the spice’ which also allows instantaneous space travel. The plot centres on political and personal battles to control the spice and the planet Arrakis, the only place it is found.

The author: Frank Herbert spent six years researching and writing Dune and it shows. Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to worry about an income during that time. Afterwards, success was assured, although it took a little time. He began with an idea about actual sand dunes for a magazine article which was never written. Herbert has also produced a number of other novels and short story collections, most of which are relatively unknown.

The mainstream: For such a complex plot and vastly imaginative ideas, Dune is an eminently readable novel and despite a lack of mainstream cultural cross-overs (a derided film notwithstanding), Herbet’s novel is very much in the public eye. First editions well for over £10,000. Some critics have noted that it is the best science fiction ever written. Perhaps this is why it transcends the traditional fan base, or perhaps that it focuses on people and politics rather than science.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)

The novel: Set in a dystopian future, The Handmaid’s Tale concerns a woman called Offred (Of Fred, the man she serves) who represents a class of concubines that reproduce for the ruling classes. She lives in what was the US but has been taken over by a male chauvinist military coup. A terrorist attack killed the President and emergency laws striped all women of their rights, allowing the military to take over. The book is the tale of Offred’s life during her relationship with the Commander, a high ranking official.

The author: Atwood is adamant she doesn’t write science fiction, despite authoring this and Oryx and Crake, and winning the Arthur C Clarke award in 1987. She claims it is speculative fiction, as science fiction is about ‘monsters and spaceships’. The Canadian is perhaps best known as a Booker winner for The Blind Assassin about relationships during WWII, including that of a pulp science fiction author.

The mainstream: This is proper science fiction. Regardless of what Atwood herself claims. The tropes are clear as day. The dystopian setting is as SF as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451. However, its success amongst the mainstream is undoubtedly due to Atwood’s non-SF works, and her constant nominations for literary prizes and her distancing herself from ‘squids in space’ and suchlike. The Handmaid’s Tale was nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)

The novel: The Modern Prometheus is a tale of caution and the limits of science, as relevant today as when it was written. Victor Frankenstein is a gentleman scientist, common of the day. He suffers loss as his mother dies and his beloved Elizabeth is ill with scarlet fever. Spurred by grief and excelling at chemistry, he creates life and instantly regrets his creation. A battle across nations ensues between the creator and his creation, who learns and grows and seeks a mate. Victor looses more than he could ever gain from his endeavours and our sympathies flow from one side of the conflict to the other.

The author: Shelley was famously part of the romantic and gothic scene of the nineteenth century, married to Percy Shelly and daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, she is known more for this and Frankenstein than for her other contributions to literature, such as The Last Man (1826) which sees a future world ravaged by plague. Frankenstein was influenced by the work of Erasmus Darwin and a rainy summer in Geneva, where Shelley came up with the idea after an evening of supernatural tales.

The mainstream: Frankenstein has been described as the first science fiction novel, as there were scientific rules to the plot, as opposed to fantastical. However, the mainstream success is as much to with the Gothic movement of the time and Shelley’s cohorts. As well as the myriad of adaptations, like Nineteen Eighty Four, Frankenstein has transcended literature to be part of the language of modern life. Everyone thinks they know who Frankenstein is, although most confuse the scientist and the monster.

Be it far future or near, be it dystopia or comedy, proper science fiction has a place in the mainstream. With the right bit of marketing, or the acceptance of the author by other strands of literature critics, a science fiction novel can achieve mainstream success. There are many others I could have cited and I’m sure, many more to come.



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